Top Intel Dem optimistic Senate will pass security clearance reform package

Top Intel Dem optimistic Senate will pass security clearance reform package
© Greg Nash

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday he believes the upper chamber will pass legislation to reform the federal security clearance process and reduce the massive backlog of open background investigations by the end of the year. 

“There is not controversy about these changes,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — NRCC exposes security flaws 2 years after Russia hacks | Google Plus to shut down early | Scathing House report scolds Equifax for breach | McCarthy knocks Google ahead of CEO's hearing NRCC breach exposes gaps 2 years after Russia hacks Hillicon Valley: Huawei executive facing possible US fraud charges | Dem blames White House for failure of election security bill | FCC investigating wireless carriers over coverage data | Assange rejects deal to leave embassy MORE (D-Va.) said at an event on security clearance reform at George Mason University . “Even with Congress’ stellar record of getting things done, I’ll put this in a much more likely than not category to get done.”

The process by which the federal government vets prospective employees and clears them to handle sensitive government information has been under scrutiny for several years, as a result of delays in clearance decisions as well as high-profile leaks of classified information. 

Warner has introduced provisions to the annual Intel Authorization Act designed to reform and strengthen the security clearance process and reduce the backlog of roughly 600,000 open background investigations. One provision would set a goal of processing 90 percent of “secret” clearance requests within 30 days and 90 percent of “top secret” requests within 90 days.

Another would require the executive branch to set forth plans to reduce the backlog of open background investigations to 200,000 by the end of next year.

The annual authorization bill unanimously passed the Senate Intelligence Committee in June but stalled in the upper chamber after a key Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee objected to it over an unknown provision in the classified annex of the bill. 

Lawmakers on both committees are still working to come to an agreement on a final compromise version of the bill. Warner indicated Tuesday he remains optimistic the authorization bill would be passed but said he would spin the security clearance reforms out into their own standalone bill if it doesn’t. 

“We need to make the components of this legislation law,” Warner said. “The committee recognizes how important this is to our national security.” 

“I still hope it will be done in the [Intelligence Authorization] itself,” Warner said later. 

The security clearance backlog has been an issue that has plagued successive administrations, Republican and Democrat. In January, the Government Accountability Office added the federal security screening process to its “high risk list” of government systems in need of significant reform. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump NASA offers to show Stephen Curry evidence from moon landings Freedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill MORE’s administration has also been no stranger to controversy over security clearances.

Chief of Staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE was forced to issue a memo overhauling the White House security clearance process after the administration came under massive scrutiny when staff secretary Rob Porter resigned after accusations of domestic abuse – allegations his former wives informed the FBI about in 2017 as the bureau conducted its background investigation into him. Porter was operating with a temporary security clearance during his time at the White House.

On Tuesday, both Warner and Sue Gordon, a top U.S. intelligence official, described the current security clearance process as in a state of “crisis.” 

Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, said the intelligence community is already working to construct an “enhanced security framework” that will set government-wide standards for agencies to follow when conducting background investigations into prospective employees.

“I believe that by the end of the year we will have that in place,” Gordon said. She also predicted that the federal government would reduce the backlog of open background investigations by half – bringing it to 300,000 – by the end of the spring. 

Meanwhile, Trump is said to be preparing an executive order that would transfer the security clearance program from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – which currently oversees the government-wide process -- to the Pentagon.